Tutoring program: ‘bold and innovative’ or ‘more questions than answers’?

State officials kicked off Indiana Learns, a federally funded tutoring program, in August, declaring it a “bold and innovative” way to help students catch up on learning they missed during the pandemic. They followed up this month with a news release, urging families to enroll.

Seana Murphy, Indiana Learns senior director, said last week that the program was off to a strong start with an initial focus on lining up tutors and getting support from schools. Since Indiana Learns went live Oct. 15, she said, over 200 students have signed up. That’s less than 1% of the eligible 57,000 public, charter and private school students.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Murphy said in a written response to questions. “Families and schools are excited that students have the opportunity to access funds for additional math and English language arts support.”

Not all school leaders are sold on the plan, however. Jeff Hauswald, superintendent of the Monroe County Community School Corp., said there’s been a lack of clarity about how the program was designed, what the tutoring curriculum will include, and how it will be evaluated. “At this time, I have a lot more questions than answers,” he said.

Indianapolis nonprofit the Mind Trust was awarded a no-bid contract to manage Indiana Learns. It will be paid up to $3 million to run the two-year, $15 million program, according to the contract. The Mind Trust is known for promoting charter schools; it has helped launch 45 charter or innovation network schools in Indianapolis. It also operates Indy Summer Learning Labs with United Way of Central Indiana.

Funding for Indiana Learns comes from ESSER, the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund. The tutoring will be done by private and public entities called “learning partners,” including a program directed by the state legislator who authored the bill that created the program. The contract allocates $11.5 million to pay tutoring providers.

It will pay up to $500,000 to Student First Technologies, a Bloomington tech firm, to provide an online platform for connecting students and tutors and managing payments. Student First specializes in “choice empowering technologies” for programs such as voucher-like education savings accounts.

Students eligible for Indiana Learns are fourth- and fifth-graders who scored below proficient in both the math and English/language arts sections of the state’s ILEARN exam in spring 2022. They qualify for $500 in tutoring, but the state is encouraging schools and school districts to kick in another $250 per student. If that happens, Indiana Learns will add another $250, making students eligible for up to $1,000.

“We hope that all schools/corporations with eligible students will encourage those families to sign up for this opportunity,” Murphy said.

Murphy said over 30 school corporations are on board to provide matching funds: eight have verbally committed, 18 have begun the process for providing the funds, and six have completed the necessary documentation. They include some of the state’s largest districts, such as Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Community Schools. A handful of charter and private schools have signed up.

Indiana has about 290 public school districts, however, and several hundred private and charter schools. Some school officials are leery of participating, at least with matching funds. Hauswald, the Monroe County superintendent, said it makes more sense for his district to bolster an in-house tutoring program, created a year ago with a $2.3 million award from Indiana’s Student Learning Recovery Grant program. The partnership with Indiana University and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Bloomington provides in-person, twice-weekly tutoring aligned with classroom instruction.

“I believe that $250 of targeted instruction to accelerate learning can be better spent by the school district working with that student’s teacher or teachers than it can by contracting that additional service through the Mind Trust,” Hauswald said.

Indiana Learns was authorized by House Enrolled Act 1251, approved by the legislature in March. The law calls for the Indiana Department of Education to administer the program. Department spokeswoman Holly Lawson said IDOE is responsible for administration while the Mind Trust will provide “technical assistance and operation,” including employing staff and subcontractors.

She said the Mind Trust was awarded the contract without a bidding or a request for proposals because the program “required rapidly dispersing federal ESSER funds this school year.” She said the Mind Trust will be reimbursed for costs of running the program, up to the amount specified in the contract.

Murphy, the Indiana Learns director, said eligible students receive a postcard with directions for signing up, with text messages and school communication systems used for follow-up. When students sign up, families provide phone numbers or email addresses, she said. “Indiana Learns has a strict internal data access policy to keep student data secure,” Murphy said.

Two dozen tutoring providers have been vetted and approved by an Indiana Learns review committee and are available to start tutoring, Murphy said. Review committee members were nominated by state associations of principals, superintendents and small and rural schools, she said.

The program requires individuals who do the tutoring to be licensed or retired teachers or students enrolled in a teacher prep program. Tutoring can be in-person or online. Learning partners must provide students at least one hour of tutoring per week and can charge up to $100 per hour per student. Tutoring can be done individually or in groups of no more than three students. Tutors are expected to provide weekly progress reports to families and schools.

Of the learning partners now available, 16 are for-profit Sylvan Learning Center franchises or outlets and two are public school districts. Another is the Marian University Center for Vibrant Schools, directed by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the author of the legislation that created the tutoring program.

Behning said in a statement that the Center for Vibrant Schools is one of many tutoring providers parents can choose from. He said Marian formed the center to support families, students and teachers dealing with learning loss. “The state-adopted Indiana Learns program provides families with options and resources to help address the devastating effects the pandemic had on student learning,” he said.

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